August’s installment of History 301 about the city’s first Black pharmacist, Wirt Smith, ended with the surprising news that his daughter, Alpha, married the famous jazz trumpeter, Louis Armstrong. This month’s column carries on with Alpha’s story.
By CONNIE ZEIGLER
Alpha Smith was born in 1907. She was 13 and living in Chicago with her mother, Florence Smith, who was 30 years old by the time the 1920 census was collected. Florence and Alpha are shown as from Indiana and Florence’s marital status is marked “D” for divorced. Wirt Smith had stated on his second marriage license in 1911 that he was widowed. He lied. Wirt’s first wife, Florence, was very much alive and the pair had a daughter, Alpha.
Records indicate that Florence and Alpha struggled financially. Many men with families who divorced around the turn of the 19th century did not pay child support, probably most of them didn’t. If Wirt Smith did, it wasn’t enough to raise Florence and Alpha out of poverty.
According to Louis Armstrong’s autobiographical book of essays, Louis Armstrong: In His Own Words, Alpha and her mother were dirt poor. At the time he met them they lived in a “very dingy apartment,” on Chicago’s southside, he later wrote.
Louis Armstrong first encountered Alpha Smith when he was a well-known cornet player in Chicago. He recalled that “Alpha was a little cute young girl 19 years old when she used to come to the Vendome Theater twice a week.” Armstrong was seven years older – and married to his second wife, pianist Lillian “Lil” Hardin – but the two engaged in a flirtation, and eventually more. He said “Alpha used to sit in the front row every time she came. And she would sit right where I could get a good look at her. And she had big pretty eyes anyway – I couldn’t keep from diggin’ her.”
Alpha worked for “some nice white people,” the Taylors, in tony Hyde Park, Chicago, according to Armstrong, but she and “her mom lived in one of the ‘poorest districts’ in Chicago” at 33rd and Grove Avenue. It was a place so poor that the bathtub was wooden. But Armstrong said that he was happier there than anywhere else. Eventually he moved in with Alpha and her mom, who “would see that I had my correct meals.” Alpha had “fallen deeply in love with me by this time,” he wrote, and likewise he “was crazy about her from the start.”
But he remained married to Lil Hardin and at her urging he went off to New York City to play with Fletcher Henderson’s band, leaving Alpha behind with some fine new clothes that he’d bought her. By all accounts Alpha had great taste in clothes, even when she was too poor to own many.
By 1929, after a short time in New York, according to a biography of Armstrong, he’d switched from cornet to trumpet and “had become an idol in the jazz world.”
When he returned to Chicago after breaking with Henderson, he and Alpha resumed their romance, but in 1930, he left again, this time for Culver City, Calif., and Frank Sebastian’s Cotton Club. He was still married so Alpha remained in Chicago.
She was no longer employed by the Taylors and around this time, according to Armstrong’s autobiography, she became a chorus girl at a night club owned by Al Capone in Cicero, Ill. But by 1931, she “missed me so terribly much,” he wrote, that “she boarded a train for California” and headed west to reunite with him.
He was glad to see her. But not long after she arrived, so did his wife, Lil. So, he put Alpha back on a train headed back to Chicago and her mom’s dingy apartment.
Over the next half dozen years, Alpha and Armstrong carried on a significant relationship both in Chicago and other places where he was living or traveling to. A photo in the Louis Armstrong House museum shows them outside a hotel. The back of the photo is dated 1933 and the location noted as Tulsa.
In 1934, she traveled with him to Europe. When the pair visited a famous record shop in England they signed an autograph book there. She wrote “Alpha Armstrong,” by Louis Armstrong’s name, although she was still really Alpha Smith.
Alpha didn’t official become an Armstrong until 1938, the year before her father, Wirt Smith, died.
At some point, Smith and his daughter reconnected. Perhaps that time came after his second wife, Dove, died in 1936. Alpha features prominently in the short article on her father’s death in The Indianapolis News in 1939. More accurately, her husband features prominently: “Richard Wirt Smith, age 54, and father-in-law of Louis Armstrong, widely known colored trumpet player and band leader, died in Trenton New Jersey.” Mrs. Louis Armstrong (Alpha) is listed as the sole survivor.
A year later, the 1940 census shows the married couple living in a house at 101 W. 145th St., New York. She was 33; he was 39. His income that year is shown as $15,000. An inflation calculator puts that at about $276,211.07 today. Not bad for a guy who reported to the census taker that he left school after the eighth grade. Alpha had completed only one year of high school.
Alpha and Louis Armstrong’s marriage didn’t last nearly as long as their pre-marital affair had. By 1941 it was on the rocks. Alpha loved her new life legitimately married to a famous bandleader and with money to buy the fine things she enjoyed. But Louis claimed that her flirtations were now aimed at other men. And he was also still engaging in some romantic side hustle of his own.
In 1942 Walter Winchell wrote in one of his syndicated gossip columns that the couple had separated. Louis Armstrong responded to the column, writing that Alpha was dating drummer Cliff Leeman. But he wasn’t upset. In fact, he said, he wished he could “tell [Cliff] how much I appreciate what he’s done for me by taking that Chick away from me.”
They divorced in 1942. According to an article in the Pittsburgh Courier, “Alpha Armstrong peeped out from one of her six fur coats” at court, “to ask Louis Armstrong, her estranged hubby, for a two hundred and fifty dollar allowance per week for life as a parting gesture.” Later that year Armstrong married his fourth and final wife, New York Cotton Club dancer Lucille Wilson.
Alpha disappears from public record after the divorce, but in January 1960 she reappears in the Los Angeles Times – in her obituary. She was only 53 at her death after a short illness. She had been living on Roxbury Drive in Beverly Hills, a street she shared with Lucille Ball, Jimmie Stewart and Jack Benny. She never remarried.
The girl from the poor side of Chicago, via Indiana, is buried in Los Angeles’s Woodlawn Cemetery. She rests eternally with the likes of Glenn Ford and Irene Ryan, who played Granny in the Beverly Hillbillies, a make-believe rags-to-riches story that almost rivals Alpha Smith Armstrong’s real-life one.
Connie is a historian who researches and writes about design history and Indianapolis. She owns C. Resources, a preservation consulting firm.